Crossing the West Thomas Street Overpass into Seattle's Myrtle Edwards Park on Friday afternoon, I hear a guy remark, "Next year, I'll be turning 23, and so will Hempfest!"
His companion seems unimpressed by this discovery. "That's because Hempfest started the same year we were born," he says. The first guy persists, undaunted by his friend's lack of enthusiasm. "I know," he says with a broad smile. "Crazy, right?"
It is pretty crazy, actually, that Hempfest, the world's largest marijuana "protestival," has been around longer than many of its participants. The three-day event, which features music, food, drug policy speeches and hundreds of cannabis-related vendors, attracts about 250,000 people, a good portion of whom can be seen (and smelled) smoking pot at any given moment. Yet the Seattle Police Department (SPD) has learned to live with this annual affront to prohibitionist sensibilities, providing a lesson in tolerance for other cities.
Under I-502, the legalization initiative that Washington voters approved last November, adults 21 and older may possess up to an ounce of marijuana. Consuming it publicly, however, is a civil infraction punishable by a $103 fine. Yet no tickets were issued to the blatant tokers at Hempfest last weekend. "You could be cited," the cops explained, "but we'd rather give you a warning."
That message was on stickers affixed to 1,000 1-ounce bags of Doritos that police distributed at Hempfest on Saturday -- a publicity stunt that attracted international attention while conveying the SPD's laid-back approach to marijuana consumers. Speaking from the festival's main stage, the department's chief spokesman emphasized "leniency, education and patience," rather than "a heavy hand."
The SPD's hand was considerably heavier in the early years of Hempfest, when there were a lot more arrests for drug offenses. Longtime festival director Vivian McPeak says it took years of engagement to convince the police that Hempfest attendees should be viewed not as invaders but as fellow citizens delivering "our message of freedom, responsibility and peaceful reform."
It helped that in 2003 Seattle voters approved I-75, which declared simple marijuana possession the city's lowest law enforcement priority. It also helped that McPeak and his friends put together their own security, first aid and cleanup crews, which allow the festival to function smoothly with a minimal police presence in and around the 1.5 miles of picturesque waterfront parks it currently occupies.
Wandering Hempfest amid the least furtive pot smokers in America, it is easy to forget that outside this oasis of freedom police continue to treat cannabis consumers as criminals. In 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, there were about 758,000 marijuana arrests in the U.S., the vast majority for possession.
Even in supposedly enlightened and cosmopolitan places such as New York City, police continue to bust people for carrying small amounts of marijuana. The NYPD made more than 50,000 such arrests in 2011, up from less than 10,000 in 1996.
That crackdown is especially impressive because the state legislature decriminalized possession of up to 25 grams in 1977. Cops manage to arrest pot smokers anyway by charging them with "public display" of any marijuana turned up during street stops.
New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly concedes that maneuver is illegal. According to a federal judge, so is the "stop and frisk" program that generates many of the pot busts. The NYPD, in other words, has not simply been enforcing the law; it has been breaking the law for years, just to stick it to pot smokers.
No wonder the ordinarily even-tempered McPeak gets hot when he contemplates the injustice of marijuana prohibition. "We are not criminals!" he declares from the Hempfest stage. "We are Americans, and we're proud and we're loud!"
By punishing people for their consumption decisions, marijuana prohibition makes the personal political, which is why simply lighting up at Hempfest is an act of dissent. McPeak and his fellow activists are fighting for the day when a joint is just a joint.